Florida Gators Linebacker Preview: In Search Of A Leader

This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators

David Reese II and James Houston IV share a moment after the Orange Bowl. Photo Credit: Chad Ritch

In his four years on the job patrolling the middle, fighting off determined offensive linemen who wanted to get at his feet to knock him down as he moved to plug a hole to make a stop, David Reese II was in on 322 tackles. A junior-year injury that caused him to miss three games is the only thing that kept him from cracking the all-time top ten tackles list at the University of Florida.

Reese is gone now and will most likely make his living playing football for money on Sundays in the coming years. The shoes he leaves behind at UF will be difficult to fill but there are talented enough players to replace Reese’s productivity.

Replacing Reese’s leadership? Well, that might be another story because as productive as Reese was, he was like having an assistant coach on the field. You want your middle linebacker to be relentless in pursuit and an able tackler. Reese was all that but what really made him stand out was his command of the huddle. When he got the signal in from the sideline, he made sure everyone was in the right place. When he saw the opposing quarterback audibling out of a play, Reese was quick to recognize and make accurate adjustment calls.

Put simply, Reese led. The Gators followed.

David Reese II leaves the Florida Gators better than he found them. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

In Ventrell Miller (6-0, 225, RJR), Jeremiah Moon (6-6, 240, RSR), Lacedrick Brunson (6-1, 230, RJR) and James Houston IV (6-1, 235, RJR), the Gators have an experienced foursome with speed and excellent instincts. Add to the mix Mohamoud Diabate (6-2, 220, SO), who showed as a freshman that he can be unblockable when he comes off the edge, and the Gators have a group that can stuff the run, get to the passer and even drop in coverage. Behind them are six with unquestioned talent but lacking experience.

That leads us back once again to the question, who is going to step up to lead? Which one – or even better, which two – can be the calming voice in the huddle as well as the traffic cop who gets everyone in the right place and has the recognition abilities to check things when he sees the opposing QB changing the play at the line of scrimmage?

The answer to that question will determine just how good Florida’s defense can be. If, perhaps, Miller and/or Moon can take over that leadership role seamlessly, then the Gators will have a ferocious, attacking defense that will rank among the best in the nation. The Florida defense oozes talent but is there one or two among them that can ooze leadership?

Can Ventrell Miller be the next leader of the linebackers? Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Miller seems to be the likely candidate after a breakout redshirt sophomore season in 2019 when he was in on 55 tackles. He had 3.0 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and broke up a couple of passes. Miller saved his best for last in 2019 when he was in on 22 tackles in the final three games against Missouri, Florida State and Virginia. Though not the ideal size for an inside linebacker, he has exceptional speed and does a great job maneuvering in traffic without getting picked off.

Moon has freakish athletic ability but can he stay healthy an entire season? He has the speed and length to be scary good off the edge but he’s shown when healthy that he’s a solid tackler in the running game as well. In just nine games last season Moon was in on 31 tackles with 3.0 sacks, 3.0 quarterback hurries, 6.5 tackles for loss and a couple of pass breakups. He has the size and speed to cover a tight end in the passing game as well as the ability to disrupt the passer when he comes off the edge. Injured in the Georgia game, Moon didn’t play the last four games of 2019 so it is imperative that he stays injury-free in 2020. If he is healthy, Moon could come up with an All-SEC type of season.

Houston could be a breakout guy in the middle after a solid redshirt sophomore season in which he was in on 38 tackles with 3.5 sacks, 6.0 tackles for loss and a couple of quarterback hurries. Teamed with Miller, Houston gives the Gators two very tough and capable tacklers. They also have the speed and instincts to get to the passer when they blitz straight up the gut. Houston is capable of replacing Reese’s productivity in the middle if he can stay healthy and find a level of consistency that at times evaded him last year. He was all over the field against Vanderbilt when he was in on eight tackles, but only a combined seven in the final three games with Missouri, Florida State and Virginia.

Houston seems a likely candidate for the LB's new leader. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Brunson is invaluable to Florida’s special teams but he began to emerge in the linebacker rotation as the season progressed in 2019 when he finished with 22 tackles including 1.0 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. Consistency will get him more playing time. He had 5 tackles against Tennessee and 6 against Vanderbilt, half his production for the entire year. He didn’t make a single tackle in the last two games against Florida State and Virginia.